Q&A: Chef Mario Batali shares tips for preventing food waste, whether you’re dining out or eating in

Award-winning chef, restaurant owner and cookbook author Mario Batali.
(Ken Goodman)

What’s the point of worrying about what local farm the carrots at your favorite restaurant come from, whether the salmon is genetically modified, or whether the coffee in your after-dinner cappuccino was made from fair-trade beans, if a good portion of that food will simply go to waste?

Approximately 40% of food in the United States goes uneaten, the equivalent of $165 billion a year. Food waste is a serious problem, from the way food is farmed and what we pick and choose to buy at the store, to what we eat when we dine out and the way we dispose of any leftovers. Award-winning chef, restaurateur and cookbook author Mario Batali has helped to bring visibility to the issue of food waste in often creative ways, from the PSA he taped promoting ugly foods, to the beer he brewed with Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione using unsellable produce from Eataly Chicago.

On May 5, Batali joined with chefs including Massimo Bottura, Roy Choi, Dominique Crenn and Mary Sue Milliken to discuss food waste at a panel moderated by Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold as part of our month-long Food Bowl celebration.

Recently, I interviewed Batali by email about food waste, and tips he could offer readers about ways we can prevent waste in the home as well as when we dine out.

The American expectation of a plate of food is inherently wasteful, according to Dan Barber, chef and author of “The Third Plate.” What can chefs — and diners — be doing differently?

I agree with Dan, but it’s even more critical to consider American portion sizes. Americans who dine out are typically faced with the dilemma of overeating or wasting food. The obvious solution is reducing entrees by 1/3, or even 1/2 in some cases, to match European servings. Diners can also ask for half-portion sizes. Even if you don’t see this option on the menu, it doesn’t hurt to check with your server about the option to take home half.

Los Angeles Times Food Bowl: A new kind of food festival »

Preventing food waste, such as nose-to-tail cooking, is nothing new when it comes to Italian and other culinary traditions, not to mention restaurants. Can you explain?

Food has always been viewed as valuable, precious even, in Italian culinary culture. If you visit a home kitchen in Italy, you’ll often see nonnas repurposing ingredients. For example, they’ll scrape a pot of polenta and fold the extra-sticky bits into fresh pasta dough for another meal. Our culture today — and not just Americans — doesn’t do this enough. We view food as ubiquitous, which isn’t necessarily our fault. Gas stations, pharmacies and big-box stores are teeming with food, so we have the impression that food supplies are infinite.

Food waste often starts at the store. Do you have any tips for readers about how to approach food waste before it is even an issue at home?

Resist the urge to pick the perfect fruit or vegetable. It’s ingrained in many of us to look for the blemish-free apple and the dark, spotless potato. I beseech you to shop the farmers market and eat the seasonal produce in all of its beautiful — and sometimes ugly — glory!

Food waste is often the product of good intentions.

— Mario Batali

In an an earlier interview, you recommended that home cooks prep their ingredients when they first bring them home, before putting their groceries away. Why?

Food waste is often the product of good intentions. Perhaps you plan to make soup on a Sunday for the week, but a weekend activity derailed your plan and you’re left with a bunch of carrots and a head of broccoli. My best advice? Prep the items immediately after shopping. Chop the carrots, wash the broccoli and store in the refrigerator, as you’ll feel less overwhelmed and more inclined to cook for the week. If you never get around to making the soup, you can eat the carrot sticks as a snack or sauté the broccoli for dinner the next night. The prep is merely a mountain that intimidates us.

Using your restaurants as an example, what are some tips home cooks can learn about food storage, such as FIFO (First In First Out), and even food preservation, such as canning or pickling?

Before First in First Out I would say, inventory! The menus change frequently at my restaurants, and that’s because the chefs have the ability to choose their dishes based on inventory. Always know what you have in your refrigerator and make a grocery list while you’re still at home. Build a meal based on the produce that you already have. This also might inspire you to buy a few fun ingredients to garnish a dish, like fresh ricotta or a finishing oil.

How have our changing food tastes incorporated or addressed food waste?

People are definitely becoming more conscious of it and the Ugly Fruit movement is a great example of this.

Always know what you have in your refrigerator and make a grocery list while you’re still at home. Build a meal based on the produce that you already have.

— Mario Batali

Any tips for diners?

Don’t be intimidated! Ask the restaurant staff questions about the portion sizes and also consider your hunger level. Take home leftovers and eat them the next day, or repurpose them into an entirely new meal. An extra three ounces of steak and side of mushrooms would make a fantastic stir-fry.

What are five things you could do with particular fruit or vegetable trimmings that home cooks might never have considered?

Soups, purées and smoothies are effortless go-to meals. At Otto in New York City, we make delicious fried beet skins as a special when the inventory is high. If you want to get fancy, you can dehydrate the scraps. Plus, don’t forget that what is fresh can always be frozen.

Chefs and scientists will discuss solutions for tackling the global problem of food waste at the Los Angeles Times Food Bowl, running the month of May. For a full schedule of events, click here.

Chef and Food for Soul founder Massimo Bottura visits the Los Angeles Times Test Kitchen to offer tips for preventing food waste.

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